Newsletter: How can Canada meet the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals?

In September 2015, Canada, along with another 192 countries, signed on to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which set targets on social, environmental and economic challenges for the world to meet by 2030. But we’re not on track. 

In fact, Canada needs a “breakthrough” to meet the goals, according to John McArthur, senior fellow in global economy and development at the Brookings Institution, who, along with his colleague Krista Rasmussen, spent months poring over data on Canada’s progress. The goals have 73 indicators that are relevant to Canada, but McArthur and Rasmussen’s research indicates we’re only on track to fulfill 17 of them. Worse still, Canada is moving backwards on 18 measurements, including ones related to our level of gender equality, access to clean energy and quality of education, with one in 10 Canadians lacking basic literacy and numeracy. In other areas, such as eradicating poverty and access to clean water, the rate of improvement isn’t fast enough for us to meet the SDG targets by 2030.

On March 1, I hosted a Facebook live with McArthur to talk about these challenges, as well as his latest research on how Canada can tackle them.

The interview, which included excellent questions from the audience, spanned everything from artificial intelligence to climate change. You can view it above. We’ve also included some highlights from the interview, which have been edited for length and clarity, below.

Alia Dharssi: I like to think of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals as a giant to-do list for making the world a better place. How would you describe them?

John McArthur: The Sustainable Development Goals are really about thinking through the basic economic, social and environmental challenges of our time. There’s a few key elements. First, how do you actually end extreme poverty by 2030?  But then they’re also about what some colleagues of mine call “the ingredients of a successful society.” How do you make sure there’s inclusive growth for everyone? How do you make sure that the economy works in conjunction with the environment? The central tagline, if you will, is how do you have societies where no one is left behind?

How can Canada work towards the goals, while also confronting transformative challenges, such as the impact of artificial intelligence and automation on the economy?

Let me take that from two angles. I was struck by the Canadian data on food insecurity. Food insecurity is not going down in this country. If anything, it looks to be going up. There’s a Gallup survey that looks at whether people have had enough money in the past year to buy food. About 10 per cent of the population is grappling with that. This is a huge problem. That’s three and a half million people getting left behind in a pretty profound way. So we’ve got to solve that. There’s another side of this which is all the people who are going to school now to get a job or all the people who are already in a job, whether it’s millennials or people who already have kids, how do they know what they have to prepare for 20 years from now?

The goals are a huge spotlight on the need to think long term. We need to prepare ourselves to get stronger as societies to be able to weather those storms just like if you’re going to go on an obstacle course in the jungle. You want to train a lot and go to the gym to make sure you’re in great shape. You’re not sure what the exact obstacle is going to be, but you know you need to be fit.

Do you believe that fundamental change in the way we live today is needed in order to move towards sustainability and social equality? And what would those first steps look like?

There are some things where business as usual is pretty good. In Canada, there’s a lot of things that society has done that is the envy of much of the world. So if you look at the Sustainable Development Goal targets, we’re on track for achieving the target on heart disease. It’s coming down in every province and territory. So we need to understand and celebrate that.

But there are other things where the target is flatlining or moving backwards. Childhood obesity is one where the share of children age two to four who are obese by the technical standards is going up. That’s something where we need to think and look differently. What are our food systems? How do we think about nutrients? How do we think about how our supermarkets and our communities and even our urban planning fits together? How do we think about the ability of parents to feed their kids, to support their kids? We shouldn’t pretend it’s a simple answer.

Some of the first steps can start local. We’ve seen a lot of the community networks in this country and the Community Foundations of Canada start to think seriously about the SDGs.  Sitting in Vancouver, I can’t come up with a good answer for what’s going to work for childhood obesity in New Brunswick. That’s going to be the people in New Brunswick coming up with that answer. People don’t want outsiders telling them how to live their life. But we need an outcome framework that can guide how we get our own local feedback loops on what’s working and what’s not. So the people of Vancouver might say we want zero or some really teeny per cent childhood obesity by 2030. But instead of saying there’s some top-down answer, we’re going to report every year. And we’re going to ask Victoria, Calgary and other towns and cities to do the same. Then we’ll be able to see who has made a breakthrough and what we could learn from them. This is the SDGs’ deepest power. You can have not just community-level action, but communities of practice where everyone who worries about childhood obesity can learn from each other and say, “Well, we’re going to take this bit that worked there. We’re going to try that here because we’ve seen they’ve made a breakthrough and we haven’t.” And vice versa. [end]


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